Is NASA covering up evidence of life on Mars? That’s what University of Cardiff astrobiologist Chandra Wickramasinghe claims as quoted in an article on the Helium website (warning: site has autoloading video ads).
First, I want to note that this article doesn’t appear to have much new about it; Wickramasinghe made these claims as far back as 2008, and there’s no link in the article to where he may have talked about it more recently. Still, given the nature of these claims (and the knowledge that this will probably spread around the ‘net rapidly), it’s worth talking about.
I’ll be up front about this: I have serious problems with lots of claims made by Wickramasinghe. He thinks that life on Earth began in space and was seeded here, a process called panspermia. That’s an interesting idea, and has been around a long time. The problem is, he sees it everywhere. In 2003 he claimed that SARS was extraterrestrial. He says a "red rain" in India in 2001 was due to alien bacteria (it is far more likely it was due to very Earthly spores). He claims that flu outbreaks — yes, influenza — come from space. So he’s had a long history of making grand claims on ambiguous evidence*.
I think this is where we are with Wickramasinghe’s claims that NASA is covering up life on Mars. Still, he is an actual University scientist, so if he makes claims, they’re worth looking into. But in my opinion they don’t hold up to scrutiny:
What was expected was for the missions to detect organic compounds: carbon-based molecules like amino acids that make up the building blocks of life. Instead, the results they got were disappointing. Instead of organics, they found compounds of chlorine like chloromethane and dichloromethane, which were interpreted as contamination from labs back on Earth (from cleaning fluids!).
However, in 2008, the Mars Phoenix lander did its own scooping, and found something unexpected: perchlorate. This molecule is made up of one chlorine atom and four oxygen atoms (ClO4) and has the interesting property of being very reactive with organic molecules. It’s found naturally on Earth, too.
What’s so very interesting about this is that recently, scientists took samples of soil in Chile, added perchlorate, and then analyzed those samples in the same way Viking did. Guess what they got?
The Mars Phoenix lander touched down near the Red Planet’s north pole in May of 2008. It was designed to investigate the history of water on Mars, digging into the surface soil and examining the chemistry there. It had a limited design lifetime of only a few months, since the onset of Martian winter in the north made weather conditions too severe to continue operations.
The hope was that NASA would be able to revive the lander once spring had sprung. Many such attempts have failed, and we may now know why: new images show the lander may be damaged.
The image on the left was taken in July 2008 with the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and shows the lander in blue. The image on the right was taken just a few days ago, on May 7, 2010. The illumination is similar in the two shots — note the landscapes are very similar looking — but the shadow cast by the lander looks different now. My first thought was that dust built up on the lander, making it look different, but scientists have shown this not to be the case.
The Phoenix Mars Lander is sitting at the Martian north pole, its mission complete. Designed to study the history of water on Mars and investigate potential human habitability, it touched down in May 2008. It dug trenches and examined the surface soil of Mars for months, but the Martian winter was inexorable. Eventually, the intense cold forced engineers to shut Phoenix down (as planned), and there it still sits.
The HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took images of Phoenix last year while its mission was still active, in June 2008. Here’s that image:
Phoenix is pretty obvious! The surface there was relatively free of frost at that time. But scientists on Earth decided to get more images, this time during the winter. In July of this year they found Phoenix once again, but the picture is a little different!
First off, the green is not real; this is a false color image. So don’t go thinking they found moss bogs or anything like that. What you’re seeing is the same field as in the first picture, but this time its covered with carbon dioxide frost! Even Phoenix appears to have CO2 over it, making it pretty difficult to see. I imagine that if they hadn’t taken the earlier picture, it would’ve been a lot harder to pick the lander out from the background.
Spring sprung on the northern hemisphere of Mars a couple of weeks ago, and in another few months scientists will try to contact Phoenix and see if they can wake it up after its lengthy hibernation. It’s a bit of a long shot — the mission wasn’t designed for it — but one thing we’ve learned about the probes we’ve sent to Mars is that they can be incredibly hardy: the two rovers are still operating years after the initial design lifetime. So maybe Phoenix will live again, and get back to work (expect other news sources to say it will rise from its ashes; a bad metaphor given that it’s covered in frost). And if it does, images like the ones above from HiRISE will help us back here on Earth interpret what it’s seeing. The more eyes we have on Mars, the better.